Religious Freedom act

Indiana is in the spotlight at the moment, with the uproar over the recently passed, and ‘fixed’, Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  When even legal scholars say that RFRAs are complex and difficult to understand, I’m not even going to try to explain them.  What I am going to try to do is describe how all of this is an example of the more widespread problems related to citizens wanting to participate in their governance.

Growing up in Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) I was taught that we have an obligation to participate in the democratic process.  I am among the many, many members who have worked with the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) over the years, as we try to have a moral voice in government affairs.  I was also taught, by example, that acting in accordance with my faith supersedes obeying the laws of man.  Nearly twenty members of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) refused to cooperate with the Selective Service system and spent time in Federal prisons.  When my number came up during the Vietnam War, I refused to cooperate, too.  A related Supreme Court case meant I did not have to go to prison (whew!).

Another aspect of faith in action that is relevant to the rest of the story is related to the environment.  Having grown up on Iowa farms, it was a rude awakening to try to ride my bicycle through Indianapolis’ traffic.  This was in the days before catalytic converters, so we could visualize what we were dumping into the air.  I ended up owning a few cars, but was never comfortable about the pollution.  So when my best friend totaled my car, I decided to see if I could live without one.  Our city bus system is not highly rated, but it is good enough.  Almost forty years later, I can say it is not only possible, but has had a lot of beneficial side effects.

You have likely shared my deep frustration, witnessing the willful refusal to deal with what is now a deep environmental crisis.  When I discovered the Keystone Pledge of Resistance online ( two years ago, I knew I wanted to be involved.  The brilliance of the Pledge is how it is very focused on a specific idea, and the action of a specific person.  Stopping Keystone was a vehicle we used to educate the public about the dangers of tar sands extraction.  The pledge says, if the State Department recommends approval of the pipeline, all of the Keystone Resistance members will participate in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to try to influence the President’s decision.   That meant we had to develop a national nonviolent civil disobedience network, similar to the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights era.  Organizers from the Rainforest Action Network (RAN–‘action’ is our middle name) went to 25 cities across the U.S. to train trainers for this purpose.  The summer of 2013 nearly 400 of us were trained as trainers, who in turn trained a little over 4,000 others in the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience.  In Indianapolis I’ve help lead six training sessions for the Pledge.  To date, the Pledge has not been triggered, because we are still waiting for the State Department’s decision.  What has happened is that we have developed into a core of passionate and committed environmentalists, who have helped each other in our various environmental endeavors in the two years since that initial training.

We’re getting closer to recent events.  First though, most of you have probably heard of the Moral Mondays movement, which began several years ago in North Carolina.  Like Indiana, North Carolina’s legislature and Governor’s office is under the control of one party.  Rev. William Barber, who was president of the state’s NAACP organization, began to raise a moral voice against the repressive policies that were being enacted despite the objections of many.  When the usual steps of letter writing, letter to the editor, and office visits proved to be futile, the movement began to use acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in the statehouse.  Eventually nearly 100,000 were arrested.  The movement’s successes have resulted in similar organizations being formed in other states.  The great thing about the Moral Mondays movement is that is refers to itself as a fusion movement, where many, diverse organizations and people set aside their differences, and concentrate on what they can agree to work on together.

We have just reached the one year anniversary of the Indiana Moral Mondays movement.  Erin Polley, (Indianapolis’ AFSC staff person) has worked tirelessly to help build the movement here.  About half a dozen members of North Meadow Circle of Friends, that I attend, are also involved.  Rev. Barber joined us in October for the weekend of activities around the launch of Indiana Moral Mondays, which culminated in a one mile march through the city to the State Capitol building   We have formed working groups around our core issues and meet monthly.

This then is the first Indiana Legislative session since Indiana Moral Mondays (IMM) was formed.   We’ve written many letters, had office visits, testified at committee hearings, and held rallies.  Although we had a few successes, such as when the solar/renewable energy sector joined us to oppose a bad net-metering bill, more often we faced the same situation the caused Moral Mondays to be formed in North Carolina.

Then the Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act came before the General Assembly and we saw the legislative process at its worse.  The bill advanced despite the unanimous objections, eloquently stated, by the minority party.  As more people became aware of the bill, alarm spread, and negative reactions began to appear from the business community.  Aware of the growing opposition, the Governor signed the bill in a private ceremony.  The rest has played out in a very public way.

Friends don’t usually speak of perceptions, because it is implied that they may not be based on the truth, but in this case a huge number of people had a specific perception about how all this came about.  The Governor has a long, public history of opposition on LGBT issues.  Opponents of marriage equality in Indiana are not happy that the state was recently forced to recognize same sex marriage by the courts.  And three of the strongest conservative lobbyists for the RFRA were present during the private signing ceremony as seen in a widely published photo.  The very widely held perception was that the bill was forced through the legislature and signed based on conservative opposition to the LGBT community.  This perception was feed by remarks to that effect by the bill’s supporters.

It was especially disconcerting to me when the Governor, on several occasions, purposely tried to mislead us about the language in the bill.  The problem with the Indiana RFRA is that it contains significantly different language and concepts from other states’ RFRAs, but he was saying it did not.  If we are to have an informed political discourse, public officials need to be honest.

It has been so heartening to have witnessed the outpouring of support for the LGBT community, and against the RFRA.  It was also amazing to witness the people of Indianapolis marching through the streets to protest  Those were major factors that resulted in the “fix”, i.e. adding language to the RFRA that appeared to prevent using it to discriminate again members of the LGBT community.  But there is still bad language in the bill.  And the thing that is different in regard to RFRA in Indiana is that Indiana does not have statewide protections of the civil rights of the LGBT community.  Recently Indiana Moral Mondays held an event on the grounds of the state Capitol where leaders from many different faiths in Indianapolis spoke of their opposition to the bill and calling for its repeal.


So here we have just the type of situation Moral Mondays was created to try to address.  We continue to try to use lawful means to have the bill repealed.  But we are aware that we may have reached the point where we need to employ the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience.  Which brings up the issue of training, again.  Fortunately, the Keystone Pledge of Resistance is one of the coalition partners of Indiana Moral Mondays, and all of the Action Leaders are also very involved with IMM.  With the enthusiastic support of the Rainforest Action Network, we rewrote their training manual to work with the IMM audience.  Several weeks ago we presented the first nonviolent civil disobedience training session for the Indiana Moral Mondays movement.

It is good when each step along the path of transforming faith into action can build upon its predecessor.

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